(Slight edit below.)
It was Bob Dylan who pioneered the iconography of a rural kid heading for New York City, guitar on his back, seeking his fortune. Fifteen years after Dylan found it, you could still find your own musical fortune in New York, but with new wave and disco riding high, if you thought you could still get it with a guitar, you were a relic.
Steve Forbert was a relic. A native of Mississippi, he came to New York in 1976 prepared to busk for spare change if that’s what it took. (And it did.) He eventually graduated to clubs, Gerde’s Folk City and eventually even CBGB, and landed a record deal. Alive on Arrival, released late in 1978, was not bleeding-edge hip, given mainstream taste in that year of Saturday Night Fever, and with acts like the Ramones and Blondie the toast of New York. But it was literate and truthful—many songs coming straight from Forbert’s experiences as a struggling singer in the city—and critically acclaimed, too. It ended up as much a document of its time as other more famous records released that same year.
In the fall of 1978, I was a freshman in college, sharing a dorm room with a high-school friend, and it wasn’t going well. Being in each other’s presence 24/7 wasn’t as great as we imagined. Plus, as the semester went on, I grew happier and happier at school, making my way onto the campus radio station, while he grew more and more unhappy, eventually deciding to take a semester off and transfer. The one thing we consistenly agreed on was The Quiet Hour, a program of acoustic rock and jazz on Madison’s WIBA-FM every night at 6:00. It was there that I first heard Alive on Arrival. Naturally, I liked it better than my roommate did, and I think I probably drove him crazy talking about it and playing it.
A year later, Alive on Arrival had turned Forbert into the next new Dylan, so his new album, Jackrabbit Slim, was eagerly anticipated. It was a little slicker than its predecessor, more musically ambitious, and it produced an honest-to-goodness hit single, the exuberant “Romeo’s Tune.” For a period of months, Jackrabbit Slim was in the hot rotation on the campus station, and it looked like Steve Forbert might really be the next big thing. At least until his next album, Little Stevie Orbit, which didn’t live up to the previous two, even though its single, “Get Well Soon,” was pretty great. And within a couple of years, Steve Forbert became the guy you wondered whatever happened to.
Alive on Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim have retained honored places in my collection for better than 30 years, and they frequently find their way into the player, and especially into the CD bag for road trips. Recently, I have been listening to a new reissue with both albums in the same package, expanded with bonus tracks. Each set of bonus tracks contains one superlative song. “House of Cards,” from the Alive on Arrival disc, is about Elvis Presley, and is the hit single that Alive on Arrival never had. Added to Jackrabbit Slim is “Smoky Windows,” on which the happily banging keyboards of “Romeo’s Tune” are tolling the years instead. Jackrabbit also includes the highly topical-for-1979 “The Oil Song,” which was originally released on a 45 inside the Little Stevie Orbit package. [Late edit: No it wasn’t, apparently. It was included with some copies of Jackrabbit, but I’ll be damned if I remember getting it in mine.] There’s also an alternate version of “Make It All So Real,” one of Forbert’s most ambitious songs, in which two separate stories collide for a brief, telling moment, and a live “Romeo’s Tune.”
The new reissue is on the Blue Corn label, which specializes in Americana, and it features liner notes by music journalist David Wild. It’ll be out officially on March 26th. Many thanks to Cary Baker and the folks at Conqueroo for sending a copy.